Well, it is the first Sunday in Advent as I write this, so I hope that the Christmas pudding that you boiled on Stir-Up Sunday is now aging happily, safe from rodents–particularly squirrels, who seem to have a mad passion for suet.
Suet in Excelsis
What’s that you say? The previous sentence was almost unintelligible? You have no idea of what I write? You are unacquainted with that most magnificent feature of English cookery?
Let the late Patrick O’Brian, in whose novels puddings feature in gluttonous abundance, explain the magnificence of the pudding race (to paraphrase the poet Burns). Dividing the genus of puddings into three parts, he touches on the herb-pudding, a sort of super-dumpling designed to fill a large family before the meat arrives; second, those puddings which are eaten as the main part of the meal, such creations as haggis, or steak and kidney pudding; and finally, those served after the meat has been cleared. This is what Americans might call dessert; but the English–those free of Americanisms–properly refer to that course as pudding, synonymously with their great creation. O’Brian explains the paragon of that name thusly:
[Pudding is]…the end and the crown of a dinner, reaching its apotheosis at Christmas, when the plum-pudding, a wonderful mixture of dried currants, raisins, rum, candied peel, spices, small silver charms, and of course the essential suet, comes to the table, blazing with brandy and topped with holly. Second only to that of Christmas we find a series of others, all founded upon that happy marriage of flour (two parts), suet (one part) and sugar consummated in a cloth or basin surrounded by boiling water. In Spotted Dog, for example, the dough is liberally sprinkled with fine bold currants and the cloth is tied tight, so that when the pudding is turned out on the dish its exterior is firm and relatively dry; in the version known as Drowned Baby, on the other hand, the cloth is somewhat looser, so that the resultant surface is agreeably glutinous. Plum duff is much the same, but prunes, sultanas or even dates take the place of currants (when it is made with raisins it is known as figgy-dowdy in the West of England). Then there is roly-poly, in which the dough or paste is rolled out, spread with jam and rolled up again before being put into its cloth and boiled; and to this day a square in Lisbon is called after it, because the elegant paving has much the same pattern.
Other sweet dishes sometimes reach the table at the end of the meal, and by extension they too are called puddings; but although there are respectable tarts, pies and preparations based on rice, most of the custards, sillabubs, flummeries and other kickshaws do not deserve the name at all, which should be reserved for nobler objects altogether, the true heroes’ delight.
Note that O’Brian describes the pudding as being boiled. This, to be sure, is not completely necessary. Steamed puddings are perfectly acceptable; perhaps my favorite pudding, the Sussex Pond, is steamed and I think would be hard to produce by boiling it.
What is not in question–or shouldn’t be–is suet. Pudding is indeed the happy marriage of flour, sugar and the particularly pure beef fat loaded in around the kidneys of contented and well-fed cattle. This is a very fine shortening, and nothing can really be used as a substitute. If you doubt this, read this article from The Daily Telegraph. (It was really quite amazing to me that of four “traditional” Christmas pudding recipes tried by the author, the only one calling for suet was from the 1840′s…things are worse in England than I thought.)
The result of this marriage of suet and flour is a kind of cake; but a cake made without leavening, and unlike other kinds of cake actually moist and delicious. Face it, cakes are usually a disappointment. Puddings rarely are.
As O’Brian describes, the varieties of pudding are sometimes just a question of a slight change in preparation, or a change of ingredient. These slight alterations can however make quite a difference, and the result is that the number of possible puddings can be quite dizzying, given also that those variations are also sometimes dependent on regional traditions. An old website at W.W. Norton promoting a cookbook featuring many of the foods described in O’Brian’s novels, a fantastic work of culinary history bearing the still more fantastic title Lobscouse and Spotted Dog: Which It’s a Gastronomic Companion to the Aubrey/Maturin Novels, offers a few useful pictures to show the difference between various pudding constructions.
How pudding vanished from American cooking is something I can’t yet adequately explain, but here’s my best guess. I suspect that it fell away as American middle-class homes all began to have a bake oven. In the eighteenth century, just about all common cooking was done over an open fire, over which things were either boiled or roasted. (For the essential part of this story see More Work for Mother: The Ironies of Household Technology from the Open Hearth to the Microwave.) People ate a lot of stew. And roasted meat. And boiled meat. And puddings, legendarily boiled in the same pot as the Sunday joint of beef. Though, perhaps, those puddings were O’Brian’s aforementioned herb puddings. Keen as I am on puddings, I do not think that a spotted dog done in beef broth would be quite the thing.
Good wood-burning stoves made bake ovens within reach of the middle class, and early industrial chemistry soon provided cooks with leavenings other than yeast, viz., baking soda and baking powder by the end of the nineteenth century. With those ingredients there was no particular reason why puddings should remain in American cookery. Finally, I also suspect that puddings had a certain specificity to English ethnicity that was overwhelmed by other immigrant cultures in the United States. I mean, why should the Germans learn how to make puddings? Don’t they already have enough dessert?
But thank goodness that the English stubbornly held onto the pudding. True, even in England it has become threatened if not endangered–witness the failure to use suet discussed above. But there are, as one might expect, centers of resistance from which puddings might yet again burst forth to save England in her time of peril. In the meantime, study, go to school on puddings, consult WikiPudia, and make your own. True, you might have some difficulty in finding an actual butcher who knows what kidneys are, let alone suet. But the end result is well worth it.
A bit larger than you can conveniently boil at home